ARGUMENT: Defining Islamophobia Is the First Step Toward Addressing It | MOHAMMAD ZAHEER | FOREIGN POLICY | 29 JAN 2021
In the United Kingdom, Islamophobia is on the rise, but existing anti-racist measures are not equipped to deal with it.
Over the last few years, the United Kingdom has seen Islamophobia rise at a disturbing rate. In 2011, Sayeeda Warsi, a former chairman of the Conservative Party and one of the country’s leading Muslim politicians, raised alarm bells when she claimed that anti-Muslim racism had become so normalized that it had “passed the dinner table test.” Unfortunately for her and the wider British Muslim community, things have gone from bad to worse. In 2020, the Muslim Council of Britain sent a dossier of 300 allegations of Islamophobia against Prime Minister Boris Johnson and members of the Conservative Party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. It was the second time, to no avail, that the Muslim Council of Britain had implored the equalities watchdog to launch a formal investigation into the ruling party.
This past December, it was reported that The Great British Bake Off’s Ali Imdad was subjected to Islamophobic abuse while taking the bus home. Not only did none of his fellow passengers come to his aid, according to Imdad, but when he tried to speak up to defend himself, the bus driver threatened to throw him off.
Islamophobia does not garner the same recognition as related terms, such as racism, possibly because it has only been recognized in policy discourse in a meaningful way for the last 20 years. In fact, despite several high-profile efforts—including by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims in 2018—there is not yet even a universally accepted definition of Islamophobia.
The United Kingdom has more than 3.4 million Muslim residents, making up almost 5 percent of its overall population. The British Muslim community embodies an enormous diversity of language, culture, and socioeconomic status along with a diversity of Islamic practices. But despite having a presence in the country as far back as the 16th century, Muslims are still often treated as “the other.”
Islamophobia in the United Kingdom really came under the spotlight in the 1970s due to the OPEC oil crisis, which saw the conflation of Arabs and Muslims, both being considered a threat to Britain’s economy and civilisation. The aftermath of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, which earned him the ire of Muslims around the world and a religious edict against his life by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, also thrust Islamophobia into the mainstream.
At the same time, the Rushdie affair—and the alienation of Muslims that came with it—pushed many of the country’s young Muslims to coalesce around a Muslim identity, which, in turn, led to their further rejection by the broader British society. Although the country’s race laws provided legal protection for Sikh and Jewish communities on the basis of their racial/ethnic identity, British Muslims were left out. In the case of Nyazi v Rymans Ltd in 1988, the Muslim appellant was denied protection under the Race Relations Act 1976 because “Muslims include people of many nations and colours, who speak many languages and whose only common denominator is religion and religious culture.”
Even decades later, British anti-racist legislation is inadequate for dealing with the targeting of Muslims by far-right groups using subtler forms of prejudice and discrimination. For example, prominent columnists at major platforms have written articles calling Islamophobia a fiction, arguing that there isn’t nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party, or ominously asking, “What will we do about the Muslim problem then?” They’ve faced negligible professional fallout or loss of respectability, something that is hard to imagine if the target were another group. Before he was prime minister, Boris Johnson even compared women in burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” Despite Islamophobic incidents reportedly jumping by 375 percent in the week following his comments, an internal inquiry by the Conservatives found them to be “respectful and tolerant.”
It isn’t just right-wing politicians who spur Islamophobia. While there has been widespread coverage of the presence of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, which is considered to be the country’s largest anti-racist political party, was also in the news for the wrong reasons. Late last year, the Labour Muslim Network put out a damning report on the party’s Islamophobia, revealing that more than one in four Muslim Labour members had experienced discrimination within party ranks and that half of the Muslim membership did not trust the new party leadership to tackle the issue.
The media plays a role in the problem, too, perhaps because of their focus on Islam in foreign contexts. Back in 2007, a Greater London Authority report uncovered that in a week’s coverage by the British media, 91 percent of the stories about Muslims were negative in nature. A more recent study by the Muslim Council of Britain last year revealed that not much had changed. Studies have shown that exposure to negative portrayals of Muslims in the media make the population more likely to support government policies that are detrimental to Muslims and an erosion of their rights.
An Arab News/YouGov poll in 2017 found that the majority of British people were in favour of racial profiling against Arabs. In 2019, YouGov found that 38 percent of British people believed that Islam was not compatible with Western values. A much higher proportion of respondents had an unfavourable view of Islam compared to any other religion.
The othering of Muslims—where they are seen as an outside threat—turns them into seemingly legitimate targets for disproportionate levels of suspicion, surveillance and intelligence gathering. Government programs like Prevent, the counterterrorism program, arguably reinforces Islamophobia; Muslims account for more than 65 percent of referrals despite only making up 5 percent of the British population. This has led many British Muslim students to fear expressing themselves freely or participating politically. Even Muslim charities have been problematised. A 2017 study found that “38 percent of all disclosed statutory investigations conducted are on Muslim charities despite representing only 1.21 percent of the sector.”
Issues such as racism, othering, and Islamophobia are not just abstract concepts restricted to the realm of academic discourse; they have real-life negative consequences for their victims in all aspects of life. Studies have shown that Muslim students are less likely to be offered places in Russell Group universities, which are seen as the country’s elite institutions, even with the same grades as their white peers. Meanwhile, Muslims continue to “suffer the greatest economic disadvantages of any group” in British society, with unemployment rates in the community double that of the general population. The proportion of Muslims in higher managerial, administrative, or professional jobs is just half that of the general population.
Over the years, many policymakers, including former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, have led calls for the Muslim community to make greater efforts to conform to “British” values. Much of these calls for greater integration are just “assimilation under the guise of multiculturalism,” as the scholar Leon Moosavi has written. It entails the marginalized group giving up its own identity and adopting that of the dominant group—without the dominant group having to make any meaningful concessions in return. Besides, embracing so-called British values hasn’t prevented prominent Muslims such as Baroness Warsi, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan or journalist Ash Sarkar from being inundated with Islamophobic abuse.
Welcoming outgroups instead may be a good start, but that still would not go far enough. Issues of exclusion are about more than just a handful of prejudiced people with backward views. They run deep and are systemic. Indeed, the only way issues of this magnitude can ever be resolved is through wholesale reform, beginning, first and foremost, by acknowledging that Islamophobia is a real concern.
For starters, adopting the working definition of Islamophobia—“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”—that was developed by the APPG on British Muslims would go a long way in signalling not only the recognition of the discriminatory phenomenon by lawmakers, but that it will be strongly challenged. The previous attempt to get the government to accept this working definition was met with fierce resistance. Pushing it through will require tremendous courage and political will.
What would help show that Islamophobia will longer being tolerated is if the Equality and Human Rights Commission took heed of the concerns of the Muslim community and launched an enquiry into the Conservative Party in the same way that it investigated anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. This needs to happen sooner rather than later. British Muslims have already suffered long enough.
Mohammad Zaheer is a journalist and political commentator.